Hawaiian Fishponds Are Rebounding In The Face Of Rising Seas And Invasive Species

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Kamala Anthony has heard many stories about Kaumaui. Aunties and uncles from her Keaukaha community used to hang out and throw parties on the lush three-acre property in Hilo and she’d pass it a thousand times as she grew up down the street.

With grassy hills and gardens, Kaumaui’s most prominent feature is the intricate loko i‘a, or Hawaiian fishpond, framing the property. Anthony remembers the Okazaki family who used to live there, farming tilapia and mullet in the connected ponds and inviting their neighbors to come fish.

Hui Ho‘oleimaluo, along with Hawaii Land Trust, hope to garner a conservation easement for the Kaumaui property, pictured above. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Anthony is the co-founder of Hui Ho‘oleimaluo, a nonprofit dedicated to the restoration of Hawaiian fishponds like the one at Kaumaui. They have been maintaining a nearby loko, Honokea, at Waiuli Beach Park since 2014.

Now, in partnership with Ka ʻUmeke Kaʻeo Hawaiian Language Immersion Public Charter School, they have set their eyes on Kaumaui, not just to restore the fishpond to its heyday, but to turn it into a community gathering place and outdoor classroom.

Stemming The Tide Loko Ia Climate Change Kamala Anthony Cherie Kauhi
Kamala Anthony, left, studied how climate change would affect the salinity and water quality of loko i‘a with classmate Cherie Kauahi. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

“Never in a million years did we think we’d be here,” Anthony said.

The resurgence to restore these almost forgotten spaces has strengthened due to the committed work of community stewards like Anthony. But the effort by the kia‘i loko, as the fishpond caretakers are called, has required more than understanding traditional practices. Managing a loko i‘a now requires an understanding of the modern challenges from invasive species and climate change to administration and funding.

‘Reflection Of The Community’

Pre-Western contact, there were almost 500 loko i‘a across Hawaii. They are highly engineered aquaculture systems used to farm fish to support the entirety of an ahupua‘a, a traditional land division. Lawai‘a, or fishermen, fished not just for their own families, but for their community.

Centuries later, there isn’t a clear number as to how many active loko there are because most of them are degraded, due to hundreds of years of neglect and inaccessibility. Covered in mangrove, dilapidated walls and derelict ownership has led many of these once-productive food sources to disappear.

Honokea Loko Ia Fish
Traditional fish found in loko i‘a include aholehole, ‘ama‘ama and papi‘o but other predatory species like barracuda can make their way into the ponds. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Anthony’s passion for fishponds came from a lifetime of loving where she is from. The vision of Hui Ho‘oleimaluo is “thriving communities through thriving ecosystems,” referring to a metaphor she uses for loko i‘a.

“A loko i‘a is a reflection of the community, so if it’s momona (abundant), that means that your community is abundant as well,” Anthony said.

She remembers attending an annual workshop of loko i‘a practitioners in 2017 that really solidified her team’s intentions for the Honokea and now Kaumaui fishponds. Facilitated by Kua‘aina Ulu Auamo, they learned from others doing the same work and felt empowered to continue their restoration efforts back home.

Brenda Asuncion, the Hui Malama Loko I‘a coordinator for KUA, says one of the biggest needs she sees is the administration and funding to run these kinds of community efforts.

“Most people that come to this work want to be outside, removing invasive trees and fish or rebuilding rock walls, you know?” Asuncion said. “They want to be in it.”

In her role, she acts as a link between the almost 45 loko i‘a in their hui, or group, creating spaces and facilitating conversations where they can learn from each other to accomplish the visions they have for their loko.

A graphic showing the types of loko ia in Hawaii
There are at least five types of loko i‘a depending on location. Loko wai, loko kuapa and loko pu‘uone usually belonged to royalty. Screenshot: Hui Malama Loko Ia/KUA

Every loko is unique and there are different varieties of fishponds depending on their location and water sources. Most efforts to restore these cultural resources come from small families or communities who want to take ownership of these places.

“Like many other Indigenous practices and knowledge, these were highly managed systems that required constant observation and expertise,” Asuncion said.

That deep understanding of place is something that Anthony and her co-founders, Nahoku Kahana and Manoa Johansen, are going through right now at Kaumaui. They know it’s important to let the loko and its environment tell them what it needs.

“Even though many of the sites have physically been lost, they can still teach us lessons about food production and the relationship to our environment,” Asuncion said.

‘Standing On The Foundation Of Our Kupuna’

Before her job with KUA, Asuncion was a summer volunteer with Paepae o He‘eia at the He‘eia Fishpond they care for in Kaneohe. While also getting her bachelor’s degree in biology at Occidental College, she learned more about how people relate to and manage their environment.

“The culture of loko and kia‘i loko has developed around that really close relationship with not only the things you’re wanting to grow, but also the elements and cycles they rely on,” Keli‘i Kotubetey said. He is one of the co-founders and the assistant executive director for Paepae O He‘eia.

Understanding what fish eat and the seasons that affect the environment around a loko are all what Kotubetey says will help to build an ideal home for the fish they farm. It’s all about engineering the perfect environment to feed the fish that will eventually feed you.

The He‘eia fishpond has been farmed for hundreds of years. Before Paepae O He‘eia started caring for it in 2011, one of the group’s mentors, Mary Brookes, had a tilapia farm in the ‘90s. And while the organization used to sell fish, they were at a crossroads after oxygen and bacteria problems caused fish to die off in their pens.

“Are we trying to emulate a modern aquaculture style or are we standing on the foundation our kupuna laid out for us?” Kotubetey said.

Paepae Heeia Kelii Kotubetey Loko Ia
Keli‘i Kotubetey, co-founder of the nonprofit Paepae O He‘eia, weighs the invasive fish caught on their community day, La Holoholo. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2022

Currently, the organization sells an invasive crab and hosts La Holoholo days, inviting local residents to fish out predators like kaku, or barracuda, in their ponds. While invasive species continue to be a problem for most loko, another modern challenge they face is climate change.

Their understanding of place will morph as practitioners have to mitigate extreme weather conditions, like sea level rise, increased rainfall and groundwater contamination.

Hawaii Grown

Anthony studied how climate change would affect primary productivity and hydrology in loko i‘a back in 2018 and Kotubetey says they experience firsthand what scientists have been forecasting.

In 2017, they couldn’t see a section of their pond’s wall because it was covered by 4 inches of ocean water due to big swells that knocked down their walls. For a nonprofit that relies on federal grants and volunteer work, it’s a huge resource drain to rebuild the pond’s structure against climate change.

“We’re going to get smashed by climate change makai but then we’re getting hammered up mauka too,” Kotubetey said.

Not only is climate change affecting the infrastructure of their pond, but also the cultural practice of loko. They know that they have to be flexible in their future planning to keep this practice going for the next generations.

Possible solutions include building loko walls higher, creating more channels into a loko to maintain a balanced saltwater-to-freshwater ratio, and maybe even building loko more inland.

This adaptation of a practice for today’s challenges is something kia‘i loko are already doing. Anthony says the caretakers will do what needs to be done for their families, friends and neighbors to be able to fish and feed themselves.

“We just want to live happy, healthy and sustainable lives,” Anthony said. “And it comes naturally for us to want that for our community.”

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